http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2005/writers/luke_winn/04/05/preseason.top.10/1.htmlUncertainty opens the door for wild speculation. Herewith, an early, early -- did I say early yet? -- top 10 for '05-06 with a classic feel.
Incoming freshman Josh McRoberts, the McDonald's All-America Game MVP, will bunk with Syracuse, N.Y., point guard Greg Paulus, and Coach K couldn't fill his holes any more effectively. McRoberts, a polished post player, can slide in alongside Shelden Williams in the frontcourt (likely sending Shav Randolph to the bench). Paulus can either start at the point or provide a talented-backup option behind Sean Dockery. With two All-Americans back (J.J. Redick and Williams), and only one starter lost (Daniel Ewing), the Blue Devils' case for No. 1 is compelling.
The real question is not where should the Heels be ranked, but rather, which Heels are we ranking? See the above prognosis on the Carolina wipeout. In the event that the exodus is seven deep (everyone, including Marvin Williams, May and Felton leave), then Roy's boys don't make this list. If May and Felton stay -- and star recruit Tyler Hansbrough fills one of the vacated forward spots -- then Carolina is No. 1 or 2, and gunning for another Final Four.
The Wildcats lose one starter in Chuck Hayes who was the team's most vital ingredient. UK will be backcourt-dominated in '05-06, with Rajon Rondo, Patrick Sparks and Kelenna Azubuike as a formidable 1-2-3 combo. Azubuike had an inauspicious ending to his junior season, as he dribbled out the clock -- without getting off a shot -- in overtime against Michigan State. As for Sparks, who hit the toe-to-the-line 3 to send that Elite Eight game to OT, you get the feeling that his legend is not over in Lexington.
In the Wildcats' locker room following their near-upset of UNC (the traveling call still stings), Randy Foye sat on a stool, his blue jersey discarded in front of him on the floor. He didn't look devastated; he looked driven. Next season had to be on his mind, and for good reason: Everyone -- every starter, plus electric guard Kyle Lowry -- is back for '05-06. With Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi and Lowry, 'Nova will have the best backcourt in the nation. I'll admit I didn't get a real taste of these 'Cats until the tournament, but they were impressive. The Big East is bulking up with new blood next season, but one of its old standards -- Villanova -- is best suited to make a Final Four run.
The Longhorns still made the tourney, despite the chaos in Austin -- Mike Williams' delay in joining the team, P.J. Tucker's ineligibility and LaMarcus Aldridge's injury -- and that's a testament to the leadership skills of young point guard Daniel Gibson. Rick Barnes' '05-06 squad looked too good for him to consider bolting for Virginia; with Oklahoma State stuck in massive rebuilding (and likely to lose out on super-recruit Gerald Green), and Kansas also in transition, the Big 12 race has a football feel, with the 'Horns and Sooners as the early favorite
As long as the team remains in the hands of Marcus Williams, a junior-to-be who developed into one of the nation's top pass-first point men at the end of this season, the Huskies will be in good shape. They'll make do with a defensive-oriented backcourt in Josh Boone (as long as he stays), Hilton Armstrong and 7-foot freshman Andrew Bynum. Look for Rudy Gay to pick up the scoring slack from forward Charlie Villanueva's departure. UConn is counting on A.J. Price -- a phenomenal point-guard prospect before he suffered a brain hemorrhage at the beginning of the season -- to return and provide much-needed backcourt depth.
The Sooners started '04-05 entirely off the radar, and finished tied for the Big 12 regular-season title. Kelvin Sampson won't enjoy the luxury of stealth next season, but returns one of the nation's best frontcourts in Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray, both seniors-to-be. With another summer to mature, OU's guards -- especially current sophomore Drew Lavender and freshman David Godbold -- should provide a more consistent complement to their stars in the paint.
8. Michigan State
The Spartans' bid adieu to a senior class -- Kelvin Torbert, Alan Anderson and Chris Hill -- that seemed like it spent eight years in East Lansing. But was there any question, early in MSU's Final Four run, that sophomore Shannon Brown and juniors Maurice Ager and Paul Davis were taking control of the team? Freshman point Drew Neitzel won a starting role late in the season and gained two years' worth of experience in the tourney, and will return as a confident floor general. Can this group of Spartans handle what its elders couldn't -- a high preseason ranking -- and win a Big Ten title?
Three-fourths of the Huskies' vaunted backcourt -- point guard Will Conroy, sharpshooter Tre Simmons and sparkplug Nate Robinson (a likely early draft entrant) -- will no longer harass the Pac-10. Good thing Lorenzo Romar has a banner recruiting class on its way in: Superstar-in-the-making Martell Webster and bruising forward Jon Brockman, both local products, will have an instant impact, and a nice stable of talent is left over in guard Brandon Roy (leaning toward staying) and forwards Jamaal Williams, Mike Jensen and Bobby Jones. Florida transfer Ryan Appleby may take over at the point, and Washington should begin the season as the No. 1 team on the left coast.
The Tigers won 14 of their last 18 games -- before that ugly loss to UAB in the first round of the NCAA tournament -- and lose only Antonio Hudson from their starting lineup. John Brady recruited a suitable replacement -- five-star, 6-7 forward Tasmin Mitchell, to take Hudson's place alongside two powerful big men in Brandon Bass (SEC Player of the Year) and Glen Davis, and two sub-6-foot guards in Tack Minor and Darrel Mitchell. LSU had the talent to make it to the Elite Eight in '04-05, and should be hungry after its tourney flop. It just has to convince Bass to stick around for one more year in Baton Rouge.
OTHERS TO WATCH: Wake Forest will be near the top if Chris Paul passes on the NBA, Gonzaga, Illinois (if Brown stays), Louisville, Boston College, UCLA, Florida. And to avoid complaints, pretty much every other team out there with a pulse -- spare me the "How-can-you-possibly-have-X-here-or-not-here" harassment. It's been a brilliant season -- and that calls for some peace and quiet.